Sean O’Connor: Here’s to the good teachers who change our lives for the better

We never forget the names of the teachers who make a meaningful impact on the paths we choose and the lives we lead. And all it takes is one good teacher to make a difference that lingers.

By Sean O’Connor* 

I believe that as long as you have the fortune to have just one good teacher during your school career, you’ll be okay. From the entire gallery of mostly downtrodden, underpaid, overburdened and constantly challenged teaching staff, just one, who believes in you, is all I ask. Someone who recognises your potential, which you might not see yourself.

Watching my son progress through the schooling system has been an occasion for rage and despair, as he has weaved between the star teachers. Every year his mother and I had hoped, almost prayed, that he would be put into a certain teacher’s class, as would he. It is never to be. The list of fantastic teachers he was never in the care of grew longer every year.

Grade 1 was a nightmare, the worst start to school imaginable, after a great pre-primary. His teacher had come out of retirement and was fired at the end of the year. Once, when I went into the class to see her, she said: “Is your son better?” I was nonplussed. She said he had been absent that week. In fact, he hadn’t. She just hadn’t seen him.

His Grade 4 teacher was great, and he still speaks of her fondly. His Grade 5 teacher was fantastic too, tough and compassionate, although he didn’t care much for her. But I believe she did him a lot of good. Entering high school, his form tutor is the subject of ridicule. My son moved from one class to another in a docile way, just another boy who didn’t attract much attention, as he is neither academic nor sporty.

This is partly the reason why his mother decided to accept the offer of free schooling in Germany for a year. She is a teacher at the International School in a small city, which means that both my son and daughter get their fees waived. Their transport is free, as is their comprehensive medical aid. The medium of instruction is English. Teachers are properly paid and their work/life balance is a school priority. Overheard on the phone to a friend in South Africa recently, my son (aged 14) was heard to say to his local friend: “You can’t believe it. All the teachers here are f*#&ing great!”

However, it is the music teacher who is the star in his sky. He has inspired my son to compose music, and this young lad is often seen by a keyboard and computer with headphones on in the afternoon. He proudly told me he had composed a song for me which he will be bringing home on a visit soon. He is friends with the teacher’s son, so spends time at their home. On a recent visit, I met the man, and felt some fraternal affinity as I shook his hand. I understand the role he is playing in my son’s life. Even if it is a minor one, it is exceptionally affirming.

While sharing this idea of having just one good teacher with a friend recently, she went on to describe the person who had made the difference for her, and caused profound change in her self-belief, the teacher who had recognised her potential and encouraged it, and so affected the course of her life. She was at an all-girls school near the all-boys school I attended. As we each described our teachers, mine, a man, hers, a woman, it slowly dawned on us that the people we were speaking of were husband and wife. Mine’s name was Ant Lovell, and hers, Moira Lovell. They were both English teachers, and she was a poet as well, while he was a fine cricket coach.

I remember being summoned to Mr Lovell’s office, where his cat, Lexington, jumped onto my head. Such was my absurd sense of decorum that I let the cat’s claws scratch into my forehead rather than brush it off. The teacher uttered an appropriate expletive, urging me to get rid of the cat, then offered me a role in my first high school play, a three-hander where I was to remain onstage for about 70 minutes, in front of hundreds of people. It was Paul Slabolepsky’s seminal Saturday Night at the Palace, a tragic tale of racist rage, staged for the first time since the original run which had starred the playwright, John Kani, and Bill Flynn.

Some stuck-up parents walked out, offended by its provocations. This was 1986. But such was the success of the show, that we were invited to tour. The next year, I won the Drama Prize at school, hitchhiked to the Grahamstown Festival, and several years after that, decided to study to become a teacher myself. And now I make my living in theatre. All because of one teacher who believed in me.

  • Sean O’Connor is a dad of three who runs his own business, producing theatre in the workplace, in communities, and in public spaces. He has written textbooks and DJ’d weddings, and looks forward to DJ’ing funerals someday too. He lives in Observatory, Cape Town, with his dogs Seigfried and Milo, and believes that the quality of his community impacts directly on the quality of his life. Which, he feels privileged to say, is good.
  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.